The 2016 NFL season is now just over the halfway point, and one of the most consistent storylines of the season has been the decline in TV ratings. Naturally, the first items looked at are the quality of play on the field and the current officiating practices. Coupled with a few high profile errors such as those in the Monday Night Football game this week, one of the more common questions is being brought up again: Should the NFL officials be full-time employees?
Peter King addressed that question at The MMQB this week, and he makes some excellent points. Currently there are no full-time officials. Former supervisor of officials Carl Johnson initially retained full-time status when he returned to the field, but that is no longer the case. The first obstacle to full-time officials, of course, comes down to financial considerations. Since nearly all of the current officials have other jobs there would most likely need to be significant compensation given to make up for giving those jobs up. After the lockout of the officials in 2012, the NFL may not be willing to go that route. Also, asking officials to choose between the NFL or their other jobs may lead to a very large turnover in a short amount of time. If (or when) the NFL adds an eighth official, there could be as many as 40-50 newer officials which could lead to issues on the field.
The next issue that must be considered the practicality of going full-time. There are only 17 weeks in the regular season, and officials already put in time during the week for film study and rule review so the question is: What more can be done if the officials’ status is changed? There is only so much improvement that can be done by watching film, studying a rulebook, or having group discussion. At a certain point, the only way to really make significant improvement is through snaps at game speed. With only working 15 or 16 games a year and no developmental league, those kinds of reps are hard to come by. This is where NFL officials have somewhat of a disadvantage to other leagues because NBA and NHL officials work nearly 4 times as many games, and in the case of the MLB over 8 times as many. In fact, it is not uncommon for a major league umpire to work over 1,000 professional games before even being hired to the full-time staff.
One of the best points King brings up is issues that could arise with the union especially as it relates to job security. Many fans demand that officials be held “accountable”. Although officials are already held accountable for their performance, to fans this means public accountability through suspensions or dismissal. If the NFL is asking officials to give up their other careers upon taking a job with the league, there has to be an expectation that they will retain their jobs for a certain time except in extraordinary circumstances.
Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said the league will look at the end of the season at the possibility to make some or all of the referees full time. As they are already the crew chiefs and leaders for the crew, this could help by giving them time to have a more supervisory role. This could also allow for a more unified message from the crew chiefs and aid in things such as film review, rules tests, and other things of that nature. While that may lead to some positives, it is not likely that making the entire staff full-time will have anything more than a marginal impact at best.